by Tom Neal on October 8th, 2007
Back when I was a little shaver, there emerged a cultural archetype: the beatnik. Pre-hippie, the beatnik was the American follow-up to the cabaret culture of Europe from a half-generation earlier, and was famously and ingloriously portrayed as Maynard G. Krebbs on the Dobie Gillis Show (a harmless, goateed, shaggy work-shirker); as beret-wearing, poetry-spewing, finger-snapping, bongo-playing preachers of “cool”; as philosophy-reading, coffee-swilling, deep thinkers who hung out in dim-lit cafes and acted dark and mysterious; as jazz-loving, commercialism-eschewing, denizens of the counterculture; and as comic stereotypes on sitcoms and even in cartoons.
The term counterculture may have been born of the beatnik phenomenon. Note that the word wasn’t the more passive “subculture” … instead, it was the more in-your-face “counter” as in “direct opposition” to the social status quo, while embracing pacifism. The beatnik “movement,” if there was such a thing, morphed into the proto-hippie thing on the west coast in the mid ’60s. Within a few short years, there was Woodstock and then hippie went bad, spiraling off down the drug trail, and beatnik became a distant memory (almost a non-memory for most people, I’d wager). Today, I miss that persona … or more to the point … that counterculture. Sure, I expect there is some element of that culture existing in small pockets, semi-camouflaged within the social fabric, maybe viewed as “eccentrics” “weirdos” or “nerds.” Ah, but there used to be a day when their coffee houses and night club cafes provided venues for cool jazz, poets, comics, satirists and blues and folk artists; a gathering place for painters, writers, columnists, educators, activists … and probably FBI informants; a veritable percolator where things were brewing. It was called cafe society. These beatnik dives were no doubt very uncomfortable places for the “hoi polloi,” the everyday, common folk who would likely prefer a nice restaurant or movie for the evening. The beatnik mindset challenged social and intellectual complacency and conformity. They were pests, buzzing around the collective consciousness of society. Beatniks of today, if you’re out there, unite! … start something up … America needs you again (or at least, I do).